I Sometimes Don’t Want to Be White Either

Ali Michael, Huffington Post, June 16, 2015

Rachel Dolezal is a fascinating case study in White racial identity development.* She is stuck in the immersion/emersion stage, in which White people, having learned extensively about the realities of racism, and the ugly history of White supremacy in the U.S., “immerse” themselves in trying to figure out how to be White in our society, and “emerge” with a new relationship to Whiteness. Only in the case of Dolezal, her way of dealing with the pain of the reality of racism, was to deny her own Whiteness and to become Black.

She is an extreme example of a common phenomenon. The “immersion” stage is typified by White people taking more responsibility for racism and privilege and often experiencing high levels of anger and embarrassment for racism and privilege, which they sometimes direct towards other Whites. They sometimes try to immerse themselves in communities of color, as Dolezal did. She’s not alone.

I definitely experienced this. There was a time in my 20s when everything I learned about the history of racism made me hate myself, my Whiteness, my ancestors . . . and my descendants. I remember deciding that I couldn’t have biological children because I didn’t want to propagate my privilege biologically.

If I was going to pass on my privilege, I wanted to pass it on to someone who doesn’t have racial privilege; so I planned to adopt. I disliked my Whiteness, but I disliked the Whiteness of other White people more. I felt like the way to really end racism was to feel guilty for it, and to make other White people feel guilty for it too. And then, like Dolezal, I wanted to take on Africanness. Living in South Africa during my junior year abroad, I lived with a Black family, wore my hair in head wraps, shaved my head. I didn’t want to be White, but if I had to be, I wanted to be White in a way that was different from other White people I knew. I wanted to be a special, different White person. The one and only. How very White of me . . .

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{snip} We need to give White people new ways to identify as White. Because at the end of the day, we need White people to see that we are White. When we recognize and own our Whiteness, we can account for our own portion, our one 1/billionth of responsibility for what White people have done throughout history. We can work with other White people to begin to challenge bias, ignorance and colorblindness. We can use our privilege to confront the sources of that unfair favoring.

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Being White–even with the feeling of culturelessness and responsibility for racism–is nothing compared to not being White. But being White–and facing the truth of what that means historically and systemically–can drive you to do the weird and unthinkable that we see in Dolezal today.

It seems like a good warning. Rachel Dolezal’s actions are a potential pitfall for any White people on the journey towards recognizing the truth of what it means to be White and accepting responsibility for it. But we cannot not be White. And we cannot undo what Whiteness has done. We can only start from where we are and who we are.

*White racial identity development was first theorized and written about by Dr. Janet Helms.

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